One year after one of Baltimore's most violent summers, this July opened with one of the lowest midyear homicide counts in three decades.
Killings declined in the first half of 2014 to 97 people, compared with 115 during the first half of last year, when police worked to quell violence as 40 people were shot in a span of two weeks, including 20 over a single weekend. This year's pace puts it on track with a multiyear decline that ended in 2012.
While Baltimore remains one of the most violent major U.S. cities — a toddler was killed early Tuesday — police officials have credited several initiatives with helping to reduce homicides, including more patrols in violent areas.
"The credit goes to the commanders and the officers that are out on the street every day working to reduce crime across the city," said Lt. Eric Kowalczyk, a police spokesman. "We're only halfway through the year. We still have a long way to go, and our focus is going to continue to be on reducing violent crime."
For homicide detectives like Ray Hunter, the slower pace of killings gives them time. Across West Baltimore's Hollins Market neighborhood on Tuesday, he and four other detectives spread out in summer heat to unearth clues in the fatal stabbing of Patricia Harwood, 50, who was found in a home at 40 S. Stockton St. in May.
"Whenever there's less murders, you have more time to work murders," Hunter said.
The city ended last year with the first increase in nonfatal shootings in six years and the highest homicide count in four years.
This year, as of the most recent update on June 21, Police Department statistics show most categories of crime down significantly. Nonfatal shootings were down 19 percent, robberies were down 17 percent, aggravated assaults were down 16 percent, and total violent crime was down 17 percent.
Baltimore's 97 homicides through June are the least since 94 were recorded in the first half of 1983, though the city had significantly more residents then — 770,000, compared with about 620,000 now.
The dip in killings doesn't obscure the reality of Baltimore's struggles with violent crime compared to other cities. Washington has seen a rise in homicides this year but still has recorded just over 60 killings. Philadelphia, a city three times the size of Baltimore, has recorded 115 homicides.
Monday night saw four nonfatal shootings in Baltimore, and on Tuesday police reported that the first homicide victim of the year's second half was a toddler, 21-month-old Jayden Curtis. He was found unresponsive Monday in the Red Carpet Inn in the 5800 block of Reisterstown Road after police said his mother flagged down patrol officers for help. Police did not say how detectives believe he died, but his death is being investigated as a homicide.
Sgt. Lamar Howard, 43, has been working for Baltimore police for nearly 19 years — 10 in the homicide unit. While he noted that homicides are down, he said detectives continue to work the same grueling hours trying to close cases. Dressed in a navy suit with a purple flower peeking out of his lapel, he spent two hours Tuesday canvassing neighborhoods in search of clues in the Harwood case.
"From my perspective and my squad's perspective, every time we have to come out, it's one too many, and we kind of take it personally," he said.
This year, however, investigators are doing it with a lighter caseload.
That does give police some time to focus on cases, but that hasn't necessarily made solving them much easier. Despite the advances in forensic science, the proliferation of surveillance cameras and other tools such as cellphone tracking, the rate of closed cases has been on the decline across the country.
The city homicide unit once regularly closed more than 70 percent of cases, but since 2005 the rate has hovered around 50 percent — in line with the national average for similarly sized cities.
This year, detectives have a closed-case rate of 47 percent — the same as at this time last year when shootings were mounting.
Police veterans say witnesses have grown more reluctant to provide information. As Howard and his squad knocked on doors Tuesday, they emphasized that tipsters could remain anonymous and that reward money was being offered.
"It's gotten more difficult to extract information," said Hunter, a 14-year veteran of the unit. "The nature and motivation of the cases has changed, as opposed to years ago.
"We do good, all things considered," he added.
Detectives work in a rotation, and some end up with a higher workload than others. Hunter has picked up just two cases this year, while fellow squad member Mark Veney only recently returned to the rotation after working on a broad investigation into the Black Guerrilla Family gang with city prosecutors.
Detective Eric T. Ragland is the primary investigator on the death of Patricia Harwood, who was found dead May 31.
He said police need help identifying a "guest" who may have stayed with her and her roommate on the night she was killed. Harwood, who was unemployed at the time of her death, had lived on Stockton Street for about a year, detectives said.
"There might have been a fight or a struggle," Ragland said.
She was killed on a Saturday, three days before her 51st birthday, and outside her home on Tuesday a "Happy Birthday" banner hung above the door. Howard said the banner has been up since the night she was killed.
"There's no doubt that whoever did this knows everyone on the block," Howard told one of Harwood's neighbors as he canvassed the block. "No doubt."
Police have heralded several initiatives as contributing to the decline in homicides. In the third week of January, police said they had finally fully staffed several violent-crime zones that they had identified as areas needing heavier policing.
"The zone enforcement concept has been a huge part of our overall enforcement strategy. It's one that we continue to utilize on a daily basis and we track on a daily basis," said Kowalczyk, the spokesman.
A new patrol schedule should soon give commanders more flexibility to deploy officers when and where they are needed, but that schedule won't go into effect for a few more months. Officials also recently began Operation Ceasefire, a violence intervention and counseling program targeting repeat offenders.
Baltimore's current homicide count is a stunning turnaround compared with the start of the year: Twenty-seven killings were reported in January — nearly one a day, even amid the cold, snow and ice. But the numbers began to fall precipitously in February, March and April, with 29 killings combined, including just seven in March.
May saw a spike to 23 homicides, and June began with 10 killings in the first eight days before the pace slowed.
For the most part, detectives say they don't notice such trends as they focus intently on one case after the other, getting to know everything they can about victims like Harwood to find a suspect.
"She was a mother, a grandmother," Howard told a shirtless man standing behind a screen door at one home. "She didn't deserve it."
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